Something about the General Election outcome has been nagging away at me since Friday morning. Something about the unexpected starkness and decisiveness of the result.
If you’ve ever discussed politics in the pub you’ll no doubt have found yourself entering the realm of speculation. What if this happens in the future? What if that had happened in the past?
I think the 2015 result looks like something you might dream up after a few pints. It looks like a counterfactual.
What if the SNP win basically all seats in Scotland? What if Cameron actually wins a majority? What if UKIP win 4 million votes and almost no seats? What if the Labour vote flatlines?
You may remember the Sliding Doors, a film which imagines two entirely different outcomes based on whether someone does or does not make it into a crowded Tube carriage. This election is a real life Sliding Doors moment.
As Labour try to pick up the pieces of their disastrous result, the party needs to see the clarity of its new circumstances as a blessing. Labour didn’t make it onto the train – so we’re all now actually in that alternative universe in which the Tories won outright and the SNP dismantled Labour’s Scottish power base.
So how did we get here? As ever, it was through a combination of accident and design; through a series of Sliding Doors moments, all of which might have gone differently. In this post I want to explore some other turning points that helped create our new reality.
1) 9/11 doesn’t happen
The events of September 11, 2001, have an enduring legacy in British politics. Three months earlier, Labour were re-elected under Tony Blair with a majority of 167. While some of the gloss had come off the New Labour project, it was still enormously popular with the voters – and beginning to deliver substantial improvements to Britain’s previously crumbling public services.
And then Blair squandered every shred of goodwill.
It’s easy to forget that his interventionist foreign policy adventures didn’t begin with Iraq. Well, not with that Iraq War. Back in 1998 he supported Operation Desert Fox, four days of bombing of, er, Iraq. And we also had the Kosovo crisis, leading to the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, and further intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000. These conflicts prompted varying levels of unease, anger and opposition, but it was clear who the goodies were in, at least, the Kosovo and Sierra Leone campaigns.
Then Blair addressed the Labour Party conference in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, building to the following, memorable crescendo:
“The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”
And didn’t he just.
Imagine Blair’s premiership hadn’t included the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. How would you remember him?
Without the Iraq war, how many more votes would Labour have won in 2010? And last Thursday?
Here in Scotland at least, it doesn’t really matter what sort of prospectus Labour puts before the public at the moment – the brand is toxic. People feel let down by Labour, they feel hurt and angry, and they are disinclined to give them a hearing. And so much of this goes back to Iraq.
So there’s the biggest counterfactual of them all: what if Mohammed Atta et al had failed? What if they’d been stopped? Or (perhaps less plausibly) what if Blair’s megalomania hadn’t driven him towards Washington?
2) Blair calls a Euro referendum in his first term
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis it’s easy to forget that British politics was recently gripped by debate over the single European currency. It was something of an article of faith across the left that we should be part of the Euro, just as it was an article of faith on the right that we should not. (I had stopped noticing, for example, that UKIP’s amateurish logo is a picture of the sterling symbol, reflecting its original, bygone focus on ‘saving the pound’).
Well Gordon got that one right. But imagine Labour had taken a different approach to Brown’s five unmeetable tests on the currency. Imagine Blair had capitalised on his early popularity and legitimacy by calling the Tory right’s bluff.
He could have called a two-question referendum. Question one could have asked if Britain should join the Euro, and question two could have asked if Britain should remain part of the European Union. More to the point, Blair could have demanded a greater level of transparency and democratic accountability across the various institutions of the EU, and consulted the nation on its willingness to remain part of a reformed European Union. Y’know, a bit like what Cameron is apparently promising, but from a centre-left position.
Blair would have campaigned for a No to the currency, and a Yes to EU membership, the country would have followed his lead, and both questions would have been settled.
Maybe the confusion on the Tory benches over Europe seemed like too much fun – why should Labour resolve the issue one way or the other and inadvertently unite the opposition? But looking back, Labour’s unwillingness to make much of the running over Europe has left them in their present uncomfortable position betwixt and between, speaking in code about immigration as part of their curious ballet with UKIP over a bewildered element of the electorate.
3) Brown calls a General Election before the financial crisis
Maybe it would merely have delayed the inevitable, but Brown could have given himself five years to rebuild Labour’s economic credibility if he’d gone to the country in early 2008.
The financial crisis has shifted perceptions of the key actors from the time, so it’s easy to forget the jubilation across the centre-left when Brown finally became Prime Minister in 2007. Alas, Brown’s short premiership was dogged by unexpected tentativeness and indecision, and less unexpected paranoia, characteristics which all contributed to his failure to call an election at the height of his popularity. He would clearly have won, and could have been Prime Minister until 2013.
2010 was probably the worst possible time for Brown to be forced to face the voters – the country’s gratitude for his decisive and skilful response to the crash had worn off, but it was still too early for him to reap the benefits of recovery. Maybe a five-year term from 2008 would have given him space to reshape the economy and earn back the trust of the electorate? Instead, Labour have been on the sidelines while Osborne and Cameron have ruthlessly, absurdly and very effectively reinterpreted the crash as the outcome of profligate public spending.
4) The SNP ‘bring it on’ in 2008
Tricky, this one.
Euan McColm noted recently that the SNP’s ascent in Scotland might have taken a different route, had Labour insisted on a recount in the controversial Cunninghame North constituency in the 2007 Scottish election. That’s a sliding doors moment by itself.
However that result stood, Scottish Labour lost the election by one seat, Jack McConnell resigned and the party elected Wendy Alexander as its leader (bonus points if you can name each of their Holyrood leaders in order). The following year, Alexander invited the SNP to ‘bring it on’ and call a referendum on independence. She was soon slapped down by Gordon Brown, who, as noted above, was by this stage terrified of any sort of encounter with democracy. And Salmond didn’t fancy it. But I wonder how an early independence referendum would have played out?
For a start, the Tories would not have been in power at the time, so the anti-Westminster narrative would not have played so effectively. At the same time, the referendum would have coincided with the worst of the financial crisis. On one hand the SNP could have presented this (as they ended up doing last year) as an opportunity for Scotland to escape an economy based on the venal City of London, but perhaps the pooling and sharing argument would have appealed more strongly after Brown’s swift action to save the banks?
Whatever the result, the SNP would hardly have experienced the Sturgeon dividend it has enjoyed since last September if they had run a referendum at a time when (difficult though it may be to recall) she wasn’t especially popular. Also, the SNP has built its current success on the foundation of perceived competence in government. An early referendum would surely have overwhelmed the party’s attention and squeezed out the space and time it found in Holyrood to govern sensibly.
That said, the actual indyref didn’t so much reflect as construct a demand for independence. We’re far from knowing where that trajectory is going to take us; just imagine if the journey had started five or six years earlier.
5) Ed Miliband invites a leadership challenge in 2013
This would never have happened, but I’ll close with a genuine counterfactual challenge.
By common consent, Ed Miliband campaigned very well over the last month, despite the party’s crushing defeat. I voted for him as leader with my trade union vote, so I’m partly responsible for all of this. He campaigned very well then too.
One of his problems was that the public barely saw him between his leadership campaign and the General Election.
Miliband was strikingly successful in maintaining party unity, and there was never any challenge to his leadership worthy of the name. But imagine he had invited a leadership challenge, and had fought the campaign as an open primary.
That’s right – Labour could have asked the country as a whole which leader it preferred. And either Ed would have campaigned, won, and enabled the public to get to know him better at an early stage in the electoral cycle – or Labour would have fought the General Election under a more electable leader.
This is a useful counterfactual, because the party could run the current leadership contest this way. If you want to find out which leader the public prefers, you could just ask them.
And finally: the SNP win 56 Scottish seats, and Cameron wins a Commons majority
Well, that’s just silly.